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American Football Steelers season is under a microscope before it has even started

ALL that was missing from Antonio Brown’s dramatic exit from Pittsburgh was the signature percussion that accompanies the end of an EastEnders episode. 

The now Oakland Raider was more than a little vocal at his desire to leave the Steel City and submitted a trade request in February. And he didn’t hesitate to give reasons as to why he wanted his time in the yellow and black to end. 

Chief of them were his former quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

The Steelers have been the NFL’s biggest soap opera for the better part of two seasons. Contract issues with former star running back Le’Veon Bell, coupled with the Brown issues, have made it impossible to take the team seriously as a Super Bowl contender. 

A house divided against itself cannot stand as Abraham Lincoln once said.

Last season their star pass catcher controversially sat out a crucial week 17 game against the Cincinnati Bengals after an alleged bust-up with his quarterback and even allegedly threw a ball at him in disgust. It was the final dramatic act for an offence more explosive off the field than on it.

Roethlisberger himself was not exempt. A constant calling out of teammates and a perceived protection from management rankled some and formed the basis of Bell and Brown’s disgruntlement. Big Ben went on record being unapologetic of his criticism of his wide receivers, claiming he had “earned the right” to do so. 

At the NFL owners’ meeting in March, head coach Mike Tomlin said that the entire team needed to “look in the mirror in terms of what we do and how we do it”. A 9-6-1 season was the result of a tumultuous campaign in more ways than one.

Yet the allegations made by Brown and several other former Pittsburgh players have thrust the AFC North powerhouse under the microscope before their season has even started.

Brown has taken to social media to question ownership, the accountability of his former signal caller and even liked a tweet about Roethlisberger allegedly raping two college girls. He would later unlike it, but the damage was already done.

The saga was of such ludicrous proportions that offensive guard Ramon Foster released a statement to Twitter instructing players – past and present – to come to him or Maurkice Pouncey if they still had issues.

The statement followed a blockbuster allegation from former Steeler running back Rasahard Mendenhall as he claimed that Roethlisberger is a racist. 

Mendehnall would later retract the statement, but by that time the internet had already taken a hold of it and you can bet that the claim will stick in the memory of those in the anti-Roethlisberger camp.

There are a multitude of subplots bubbling under the surface – the ugly off-season would be better served as a book rather than a column. But everything Pittsburgh do, and everything Brown and Bell do, will now be measured under even more scrutiny before a pass has even been thrown.

There will be more eyes on second-year wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and how he will cope when the coverage is rolled his way. 

Smith-Schuster was the team MVP last year and racked up 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns. The big question will now be if he can replicate that with the coverage rolled his way and with a much shallower receiving corps with Brown out of the fold.

Similar questions will be asked of third-year back James Conner, who flourished last season with Bell sitting out. But with 12 starts under his belt and a lot more tape on the Pittsburgh native it may be tougher sledding for the 23-year-old. 

His work will become even more important should the passing attack struggle to find its feet in the post-Brown era.

Media snarks and hot-take artists will be out the moment one of Roethlisberger or Brown has a bad game, summarising with absolute certainty that the duo need each other to be successful. 

Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert will be under intense scrutiny for their handling of all the above. Especially Colbert, who thoroughly botched the trading of Brown.

The organisation will have to work hard to firefight the off-field issues as they plunge head first into the draft and beyond. Foster’s statement is a part of that, but ownership and management must be the ones leading the charge. 

There are already narratives being built from what little of the new season has unfolded. There are opinions that the entire complexion of the AFC North has changed in the off-season with the Cleveland Browns acquiring Odell Beckham Jnr – among other off-season moves – and the Baltimore Ravens amid a rebuild with Lamar Jackson the focal point.

A good draft class is a must for Pittsburgh following the PR nightmare that has been their off-season. The third and fifth round picks acquired from the Raiders in the Brown deal will be scrutinised to the nth degree. Perhaps unfairly so.

Expectations will still be sky high. The Steelers are a team who view their season as Super Bowl or bust. They still boast a Hall of Fame calibre quarterback – albeit in his declining years, a two-time Super Bowl winning head coach and a litany of top-tier talent on both sides of the ball. 

But they had all of that previously and still flattered to deceive once in the post-season. Another such year could see Tomlin on a different sideline in the 2020 season.

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